28 March 2016

Anti-corruption conditionalities still matter in the EU

On March 15, the Council of the European Union adopted a set of conclusions on the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), an EU instrument that monitors and tracks judicial reforms and anti-corruption progress in Bulgaria and Romania. The document is more of a formality, as the latest two CVM reports had already been published and highly circulated in January 2016. What shouldn’t go unnoticed, however, is the fact that monitoring will continue until further notice.

The Council’s conclusions for the two Eastern European neighbors differ significantly. It commended Romania on its progress and praised it for nearing the objectives of sustainable and irreversible judicial reform, but told Bulgaria to accelerate reforms, limit political influence over its judiciary and keep fighting organized crime and corruption—mainly by creating a unified agency that would head efforts against high-level graft.

In late 2015, the Bulgarian parliament rejected a legislative initiative that called for the creation of such a body combining administrative and criminal law activities. The Council encouraged both countries to show more political will and resolve to carry out necessary reforms that lead to achieving the CVM’s objectives, which in the council’s is key to real progress. Even so, the CVM’s effectiveness is more visible in Romania than in Bulgaria, which has virtually no track record of convicting high-level officials for corruption, and reforms seem to have stalled just a few years after the country’s 2007 EU accession. Some experts even doubt Bulgaria has made any real progress in controlling corruption.

In fact, across Central and Eastern Europe—except for Romania—few high-level officials have been prosecuted or convicted for corruption. The region still faces an uphill battle to institutionalize the anti-corruption fight and keep it intact from shifting political configurations. At the same time, perception indexes (like that of Transparency International) still place most countries in the region above the European average when it comes to the spread of corruption.

The January 2016 CVM report on Bulgaria shows that the country is still struggling to set up an institutional and legal structure that will ensure a more systematic fight against corruption and organized crime. In that respect, Romania has surpassed its initial trial-and-error steps in terms of institution-building, though controversies still remain. And for other countries, even retrieving basic information on such investigations can be daunting.

Officials of both Bulgaria and Romania—and especially the latter, given its favorable evaluation in the latest CVM report—had hoped the mechanism would be lifted. However, the Council decided to keep the CVM in place without an expiration date for either country. A European Parliament hearing held the day after the Council’s conclusions revealed the dissatisfaction of many lawmakers with the CVM, which some said singles out Romania and Bulgaria and places them in an inferior position within the EU.

In fact, the EU does have an anti-corruption reporting mechanism that covers all 28 member states and evaluates developments every two years, but it is far less ambitious than the CVM. A very recent study looking at the costs of corruption in the EU recommends extending some aspects of the CVM to other member states as well, but concedes that it might not be a transferable instrument. If EU and officials of member countries read this study without political bias, it might be a good starting point for admitting that the anti-corruption battle must be at the heart of every policy and project throughout the entire union.

For now, Bulgaria and Romania are the only EU member states being monitored in this way— even after having joined the club—and this annoys officials of those countries to no end. They also claim the CVM is less of a supportive “cooperation” instrument than a political one. In recent years, its reports have actively called out politicians—and at a more institutional level, parliaments—for their lack of will to sustain rule-of-law reforms and fight corruption. In that sense the CVM is indeed becoming more political, but the domestic pressure it is able to apply still constitutes one of the main drivers of positive reform.

In case anyone doubts this, one need only look at the extent to which people not only in Bulgaria and Romania—but also in neighboring Ukraine and Moldova—are lobbying to maintain and even sharpen the mechanism. For the latter two countries, while admitting that no silver bullet exists to solve their political and economic problems, analyzing the dissimilarities between Bulgaria and Romania could offer some interesting lessons about the right dosage of political will, civic mobilization and supranational pressure. And for the EU, the issue of how wide and deep it should pursue anti-corruption policies within its own borders is yet another conversation.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.